If Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning were looking for a talent showcase, on top of a way to break apart from that corner pop culture has pinned them in, then The Runaways worked like a charm. Sex, drugs, and musical revolution are all cranked to 11 in this depiction of the all-girl band fueled by tweaked estrogen, and the film's dynamic duo gets the musty performances and tantrums down to a pill-popping, booze-guzzling fault. What's lacked in this on-screen depiction of the Bowie-meets-Bardot Cherie Currie (Fanning) and pre-Blackhearts Joan Jett (Stewart), adapted from a book penned by Currie herself, is that same sense of rawness generated by the band to break from the mold. Music-video director and photographer Floria Sigismondi finds authenticity in the blossoming eyes of Stewart and Fanning as we follow their meteoric swan dive, but this familiar trip down rock 'n' roll's well-traveled road to self-destruction neglects to harness enough distinctiveness or womanly might to give it a life of its own.
After all, "This ain't women's lib, kiddies -- this is women's libido", as the band's manager Kim Fowley (Micheal Shannon) rams down their collective throat in a jam session within a cramped trailer. The Runaways were created as a product of both a sociological and sexual rebellion, plucking gender-defying Joan Jett from her leather-clad doldrums that were caused by a lack of ability to express her talent -- or herself. As she hooks up with Sandy (Stella Maeve), a local drummer, at the behest of record-producer Fowley, with a dream of an all-girl band and without so much as a demo tape to show what it'd sound like, the band irks towards taking shape within the suburban town. Joan Jett's story, however, rides parallel to that of fifteen-tear-old Cherie Currie's liftoff from a high-school talent competition to a place as lead singer -- and their sex-pot marketing tool -- creating a story of dual development within the band's mid-'70s venue-hopping on a pennies-to-the-pound budget.
That's where The Runaways is at its best, when we're soaking in the raspy virgin vocals from Cherie and the growingly confident posture in Joan Jett, as they tackle aggressive performances at house parties, skating rinks, and other hazy spaces. During these scenes, it becomes clear why Floria Sigismondi felt comfortable with Stewart and Fanning in the central roles, because they embody the stage presence of Jett and Currie with a nimble and controlled manner. As they dodge cans tossed at one venue and, later, swagger on-stage with more rebellious fire in another, the opulent space-aware photography boost their performances into windows through time looking back at the band's higher points. Sigismondi captures that entrancing point in their swan dive, where the intensity of the action they're wrapped up in overwhelms the senses and drops stomachs in the moment.
But what we're offered at first, from the splash of a drop of menstrual blood on the pavement to the crotch-grabbing pep talks from producer Fowley, could be seen as a pledge towards empowerment, yet The Runaways devolves into a stale, conventional chronicle of an unconventional musical force. Obviously, there's no way to alter the end result of the band's downward spiral, so the turns are foreseeable; however, within the beat-for-beat rhythm as they tumble down a winding staircase, the otherwise proficient filmmaking offers little in the way of sincere bombshells. We expect the scenarios that show up around every corner -- snorting coke in odd locations, close-ups on bloodshot eyes, and arguments during recording sessions and over glamor photos -- and the way they're handled has a run of the mill energy that dulls the desperate temper generated in its beginnings. As their sexuality becomes both a bargaining chip and an Achilles' heel, the rhythm can't escape its own familiarity to ensnare individuality.
Even as it stumbles through this going-through-the-motions rhythm, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning take charge by pumping realness into these players riding the cusp of rock 'n' roll notoriety. Naturally, Fanning aptly handles her role in a chameleon-like fashion, finding a better outlet for her branching talent than the likes of the wispy Secret Life of Bees and the troubling Hounddog. Where The Runaways really grabs a hold of its substance is within Stewart's impressive performance as Joan Jett, a second noteworthy turn after seeing her in The Cake Eaters. Her subtlety in recreating Jett's look, muted angst and thorny gender-split disposition crafts the closest thing to a spitting image that I could've expected from her, easily a far cry from her nondescript Bella from Twilight. And, well, Micheal Shannon's lavishly animated Kim Fowley interacts with both of 'em with oddball brashness, which, considering Fowley's endorsements within interviews, might be at least moderately -- if reservedly -- on point.
Still, there's an overly narrow focus in The Runaways that muffles its scope, and I think a lot of it comes in the fact that the title mostly hones in on Jett and Currie as runaways -- not so much in the nature of the band itself, their music, and what they ephemerally stood for. Lots of ranting occurs in the film about exploding through gender stereotypes and the advantageous exploitation of their sexuality, yet it gets masked behind meandering focuses and a competent but trite reenactment of the industry's engulfing swirl of deviance. Sure, that's part of the point, conveying that the purity of revolt could be lost in the control of commercialism and a fog of overmedication, yet there's an emptiness coasting underneath three highly competent performances that takes away from what could've been a wry projection of the '70s female glam rocker as an archetype. Instead, it's just a plain ole' biopic that you'll swear you've seen before, even if the story fits into the mold rather well.
Video and Audio:
The Runaways comes with a heavy veil of grain draped over its 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode, which looks glorious at many points throughout the film. A lot of bright colors swim with deep contrast hues, preserved deftly through this decidedly natural image. Cherie's streaks of Bowie make up and costume eccentricities carry a lush color palette, while several nightclub sequences require a versatile handling of deep contrast -- elements that Sony's disc confront with impressive clout. There are sequences where the grain does teeter over into digital noise, which shouldn't be an issue considering the light amount of extra content on the disc, and some unsteady grain destabilizes the picture infrequently. But the overall look of this Blu-ray disc preserves the '70s-vintage aesthetic brilliantly, rightly hazy when it needs to be and satisfyingly sharp in others.
But, naturally, the big draw to a Blu-ray disc about a rock band would be the audio treatment, and Sony delivers a mightily tuneful punch with this DTS HD Master Audio track. All of the music, from the aggressive tunes from the girls themselves to the ambient usage of "Fever" scale around sound stage with plenty of delightful highs and lows. The sound of vocals in microphones sounds earthy and natural, as it should, while muted guitar strums when Jett's guitar isn't plugged in and the flick of a Zippo preserve delicate effects. To add to the punch, ambient sound effects during the performances travel to the rear channels, never losing our focus on the scenes as they thunder along melodically. A few spreads of dialogue aren't quite as crystal clear in this audio track as you'd expect, but this is otherwise a thoroughly satisfying -- and musically aggressive -- effort from Sony. English subtitles are available.
Commentary with Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning:
Is this about what you'd expect from a commentary featuring the two leads of a music biopic and one of the focal performners? Yeah, actually, as Joan Jett does incorporate jabs of "confirmation" about the way the film was constructed, from the look of Rodney'sto Shannon as the "demonstrative" Kim Fowley. She's, obviously, the focus of the track, while Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart sit to the sidelines and incorporate anecdotes about the filming process. It's a little down-key for the entire length and contains some gaps of silence, but Jett's content makes it worth the struggle. English subtitles are available for the commentary track.
Sony has also included two fairly generic featurettes, Plugged In: Making the Film (15:37, HD) and The Runaways (2:19, HD), that grapple how the filmmakers found this specific authenticity for the film. Cherie Currie, director Floria Sigismondi, and the cast, crew, producers and advisors take out interview time to explain how they connected with the film, the music, and the two central subjects. The shorter feature mostly just piggy-backs on the first piece for two minutes, in a generic little fluff piece.
Despite an overly familiar rhythm befitting the run-of-the-mill rocker biopic and only meagerly-realized themes, I enjoyed The Runaways for everything it accomplishes -- the mid-'70s shoestring-budget atmosphere, the flickers of graspable angst at the start, and the lucid performances from Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and, especially, Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett. It's worth seeing for the two actresses themselves, who breathe a well-pitched level of authenticity into their roles, but the drug-riddled crash 'n burn at the end does very little beyond just about all others of its ilk. Sony's Blu-ray contains satisfying visual and potent aural attributes, but the somewhat thin extras and limited return value leave The Runaways as little more than a firm suggestion for a Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site